Tupelo tornado: Scars, united in spirit

By Joe Rutherford/NEMS Daily Journal


TUPELO – The fourth-deadliest tornado in American history leveled 48 blocks of Tupelo and killed at least 216 people on the night of April 5, 1936, a natural disaster engraved in the minds of the dwindling number of eyewitness survivors.
Its grim toll has been impressed on succeeding family and friend generations as a life-changing event from which the community not only recovered, but thrived and grew, in part because of what today is called the Tupelo Spirit but also with a lot of help from the outside.
The storm – which today would be measured as an F5 twister on the Fujita Scale, with winds of at least 261 mph – formed from a system that moved from the west and the southwest, with the first Mississippi activity earlier that day in the Water Valley-Coffeeville vicinity.
But unlike today, with high-tech National Weather Service tracking and early warning systems in place, the Weather Bureau of 1936 used signal flags, newspapers, community kiosks, and to a lesser extent, radio, for daily weather alerts and news.
So instead of having hours to prepare, Tupelo’s residents had mere minutes or even just seconds to brace for the 1936 storm.
‘Tornado weather’ all day
Eyewitnesses in Tupelo, like Louise Nanney Godwin, who was a high school student and the daughter of Mayor J.P. “Phil” Nanney, said in a 2006 interview with the Daily Journal that the 1936 Palm Sunday afternoon was hot, humid and uncomfortable.
Her mother, Godwin recalled, noted that it felt like “tornado weather” when the family returned to their Green Street residence after evening services at First Presbyterian Church, a short distance down the street at Jefferson and Green.
Godwin, who still resides in Tupelo, said the massive storm hit not long after they got home. The front door was open because of the heat. When a huge gust of wind hit, she said, her father tried to close the door and was blown back across the living room. A few seconds later, the tornado tore the roof from their house and rain poured in.
She said her father, who had prematurely white hair, was blackened by soot from chimneys and fireplaces blown into the house.
Godwin said Nanney soon left to begin recovery and rescue efforts in his mayor’s role. Sometime after walking downtown, he stopped at the intact Jeff Davis Hotel at the corner of Jefferson and Spring streets to reserve rooms for his family.
Godwin said the hotel staff did not recognize Mayor Nanney because his white hair and face were soot-blackened.
Church visit
Evelyn Homan Duncan, 84, was a 9-year-old newcomer to Tupelo with her father and sister. They had moved to Tupelo in February with their father, Byrdie Homan, and rented a duplex on Mulberry Alley, which was near the fairgrounds in downtown.
Duncan, who had a long career in the insurance business as an agency co-owner and later as an IRS investigator, said that on the morning of April 5, the Rev. H.R. Holcomb, pastor of First Baptist Church, had picked up her and her sister, Clytee Homan Benson, and driven them to Sunday School and church services at the imposing brick structure on the corner of Jefferson and Church streets.
“It was our first time to go to church in our new town, and we had just loved it,” Duncan recalled, noting that their mother had died years earlier. They had moved to Tupelo in hopes that their father, a plumber, could find steady work in that Depression-ravaged economy.
After an afternoon of play, Duncan said, the family was indoors when the storm hit. As her father tried to close a door, a wind-driven 2-by-4 timber came within inches of hitting him in the head, which almost surely would have killed him.
Their house was badly damaged, and they went to stay for a time with a family member.
The day after the tornado, as they walked on debris-strewn Main Street, she stepped on a piece of glass that flipped and cut the top of her foot – a scar she bore for years.
Aid came in the form of a boxcar, one of many brought to Tupelo through the help of the American Legion, led by insurance agency owner and post commander J.M. “Ikey” Savery.
“We lived in that boxcar and it had a curtain in the middle, because another family lived on the other end of it,” she said. The three moved next to rented rooms in a building across from the former Black’s Department Store on Spring Street.
She said Savery became a friend who sent her family a cord of firewood every Christmas as a remembrance.
“I tell you it was a horrible experience. I just cannot describe how frightening it was. I still am terrified when there’s a storm or a tornado watch. I actually shake with fright. I just have never gotten over it,” she said.
Two good things came from the tornado, Duncan said.
“Daddy found plenty of work because of all the rebuilding that was going on, and I became an active member at First Baptist, which I love. It has shaped my life, and I taught Sunday School for more than 60 years.”
Small-town tragedy
Jim High Jr., 70, a lifelong Tupelo resident, was not born until 1940, but his parents’ house, in which he lived at 640 Jefferson St. until 2001, was under construction.
The tornado ripped off the first-floor framing and flooring and blew it off the site.
His parents, grandparents and great-grandmother were living during construction with relatives, the Weaver family, a few doors down Jefferson. The tornado badly damaged that home, but after the storm it caught fire and was destroyed.
The Weaver-High clan then moved in with other relatives, the Ledyards, on South Church Street, which was not damaged.
The Highs, Weavers and Ledyards all shared blood kinship with a famous Tupeloan, U.S. Rep. John M. Allen, best known as “Private John” and for whom the federal fish hatchery in Tupelo is named.
Allen had owned the land on Jefferson where the Weaver and High houses were built.
Allen was Jim High’s great-grandfather.
High said that when he was a young child in the 1940s, some reconstruction of houses and apartment buildings continued on Madison, Jefferson and Allen streets, all in the zone of destruction. He and friends used the scrap end-pieces of lumber as toys.
High said his parents told him the contract workers who had been building their family residence returned only two days after the tornado and started over from the ground up.
“I think people today do not understand that Tupelo was a small town in 1936, and a tornado of this magnitude was almost unbelievable. I believe 233 were killed, and that was a lot of people from a small community,” High said.
Vaughn Grisham, whose long-term studies of Tupelo’s history, economic profile and community life have become authoritative, said the tornado provided both a challenge and opportunity for leadership.
Grisham, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi and active consultant, said Tupelo Journal owner and executive editor George McLean used his newspaper – now the Daily Journal – to focus, stimulate and rally organized response and redirection of the city’s resources and goals.
“It is certainly partially true that the ‘Tupelo Spirit’ drove the recovery, but McLean and others used the opportunity as a leverage point to mobilize the community,” Grisham said.
Grisham said Tupelo retained significant momentum from having become TVA’s first city in 1934 and used to advantage a huge outpouring of assistance from the National Guard and private relief.
“The town depended very heavily on outside help,” Grisham said, noting that U.S. Rep. John Rankin, D-Tupelo, still close to the Franklin Roosevelt administration at the time, used his influence to aid recovery.
High, a longtime Tupelo business owner and civic leader until semi-retirement, said that after the tornado the community made up its mind to rebuild stronger and become more progressive.
“World War II started only five years later,” he said, “and I think that set aside many lingering worries about the tornado, and then after the war, we started the growth that continues.”
Contact Joe Rutherford at (662) 678-1597 or joe.rutherford@journalinc.com.